The Indianapolis Klan’s 1920s boycott of the Jewish community was a pivotal event in the history of Indianapolis, marking a period of tension and discrimination. This episode unfolded against a backdrop of socioeconomic factors, immigration patterns, and the rise of the Ku Klux Klan in Indiana during the early 20th century. 

In the mid-19th century, Jewish immigrants came to Indianapolis primarily from Central Europe. These newcomers, often skilled in the garment industry, played a significant role in shaping the city’s early economy. The European experience in clothing-related trades paved the way for Jewish immigrants to establish themselves in the retail sector.

The Jewish immigrant population exhibited distinct settlement patterns. Yiddish and Ladino-speaking Jews predominantly settled on the south side, near the central train station, while German-speaking Jews established themselves further north in the city. Non-Jewish German social clubs like the Das Deutsche Haus and Turnverein (see Turners/Turnvereins) welcomed Jewish members, reflecting a degree of integration and tolerance within the local society. 

The city’s Jewish community continued to grow in the late 19th century, with some individuals transitioning from small-scale retail and peddling to amass substantial wealth. Notable Jewish-owned businesses, such as H. P. Wasson and Company, William H. Block Company, and L. Strauss and Company, emerged as prominent players in the city’s commercial landscape. The garment industry, symbolized by the Kahn Tailoring Company, also saw significant Jewish participation, reinforcing the perception of Jewish dominance. 

The 1920s witnessed the resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan in Indiana, with Indianapolis becoming a focal point of Klan activity. Overt anti-Semitic sentiments marked this period, as the Klan launched a concerted effort to marginalize and discriminate against the Jewish community. In 1922, the Klan orchestrated a campaign that led to the defeat of Milton Kraus, Indiana’s first Jewish congressman. Rabbi Jacob Hartman, the rabbi of Ohev Zedeck, the Hungarian synagogue, was arrested in Indianapolis for illegally possessing Sacramental Wine by the Klan-affiliated enforcers of Indiana’s Prohibition laws.  

The Klan’s tactics included boycotts of businesses owned by Jews, Catholics, and African Americans, branding them as “not 100 percent American.” Jewish-owned retail companies were targeted, making the Jewish community particularly vulnerable to economic harm. Klan supporters distributed their newspaper, The Fiery Cross outside Jewish establishments to intimidate business owners and patrons. Prominent Jewish attorney Bess Robbins led a campaign against what she believed was intimidation by the Klan. She encouraged a ban on the Klan distribution of the Fiery Cross on the street corners of Indianapolis.  

William H. Block , the founder and owner of the eponymous William H. Block Company, one of the largest retailers in Indianapolis, was a Jewish immigrant from Austria. The Indiana Klan at one point declared that when they achieved political power “God help Block and his slacker son, there will be no Jewish Business left in Indianapolis.” Indiana Klan leader David Curtis (D. C.) Stephenson chose Daisy Douglas Barr, a prohibitionist with an anti-Semitic stance, to make outrageous claims at Klan rallies that “Jews owned 75 percent of all the wealth in the United States.” Such claims fed conspiracy-based theories about economic inequalities between Jews and “100 percent” native-born white Protestants. 

While some Jewish leaders, such as Rabbi Morris Marcus Feuerlicht, vocally opposed the Klan, others remained silent, fearing economic repercussions. Efforts to pass anti-Klan legislation, like an anti-masking law proposed by Ralph Bamberger, met with limited success. Some Jewish businesses, like Shapiro’s Delicatessen, openly displayed their heritage with a Star of David on the front of the store in defiance of the Klan threats. 

The lasting impact of the Klan’s Boycott of the Jewish community of Indianapolis remains debatable. Some Jewish businesses in Indiana were forced to close or relocate due to the Klan’s economic pressure. However, the full extent of this economic impact and the subsequent effect on the community is not fully researched. The Klan’s presence in Indianapolis diminished by the late 1920s, but its legacy continued to affect the Jewish community, with employment discrimination remaining a concern in the following decades.

Revised November 2023

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